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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: March ::
A Few Latin Terms
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.0640  Friday, 31 March 2000.

From:           Melissa D. Aaron <
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Date:           Thursday, 30 Mar 2000 08:41:23 -0800
Subject:        A Few Latin Terms

>A quick skim of today's bulletin postings on this topic shows a number
>of Latin words used as euphemisms, e.g.:- fellatio, anus, and
>masturbating. Two contributors (Tom Reedy and Jean Peterson) both
>distinguish between "erotica" ("That's the word I use if I like it") and
>"pornography" (a Greek form, so clearly much less respectable).
>
>I guess we all use Latin in this way, but why? It certainly seems not to
>have been a renaissance usage, when all the learned had at least "small
>Latin". Perhaps Shakespeare understood that the unlearned enjoyed sex,
>and joked about it, just as much as those who could read Ovid (or
>Aristophanes).
>
>So why has Latin become so rich a vein of euphemism, at a time when even
>the learned cannot always manipulate the inflexions precisely?  In my
>part of the English midlands we would describe this as being "Anus over
>face" (or something like that.)

Here's my suspicion:  in older, 19th and early 20th century scholarly
texts and translations, very often the explanation for something sexual
or "obscene" (I use the terms in its Greek sense-offstage) is footnoted
in Latin, occasionally in Greek.   The logic behind this is presumably
that mere vulgarians cannot read this material, hence will not be
corrupted, while the educated and probably male readership, above mere
titillation, can read an explanation in what everyone would have thought
of as medical terminology.  Therefore the Anglo-Saxon or street or
common terms are vulgar, while the Latin terms are still considered
proper.  Obviously this conceals a mass of bizarre cultural assumptions,
but I didn't invent late 2nd millennium Anglo-American culture;  I just
live in it.

Melissa D. Aaron
 

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